Donald Trump started on election night 2020 and continued his final days in office. He unraveled and dragged America with him until his followers looted the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his tenure. Axios takes you into the collapse of a president with a special series.
Episode 6: Georgia hadn’t supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992, and Donald Trump’s defeat in that deep south stronghold and his response to that loss would help cost Republicans the US Senate as well. Georgia was Trump’s last stand.
At Air Force One, President Trump was in the mood. He’d been sure he didn’t want to go back to Georgia, and yet somehow he’d been drafted into another rally on the night of January 4th.
If both David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler – the two contested Georgia senators he fought for – lost their runoff elections the next day, the GOP would lose control of the US Senate. And Trump didn’t want the Georgia blood on his hands.
The television in the plane’s conference room was on Fox News, with no sound. When the screen showed footage of supporters filling the rally room in Dalton, Georgia, Trump’s mood lifted briefly. “Look at that crowd,” he mused.
Fox then switched to an interview with Georgian Foreign Secretary Brad Raffensperger, whom Trump loathed for refusing to deny Joe Biden’s victory or confirming myths about fraud. The president’s disgust began again. “What a terrible, incompetent guy,” he growled.
The day before, the Washington Post had released an extraordinary recording of Trump’s phone call pressuring Republican Raffensperger to “find” 11,780 votes to dismiss the Georgia election results. Trump had accused Raffensperger of a “criminal act”.
Loeffler and Perdue had been desperate to get Trump to return to Georgia. They had backed his call for $ 2,000 for stimulus checks at the eleventh hour, a U-turn for the two multimillionaire conservatives.
In return for an enthusiastic Trump at the rally, Loeffler submitted to an even bigger concession: She agreed, together with other Trump loyalists, against the certificate of the results of the electoral college due on January 6, one day after the runoff elections in Georgia be right. It was a decision she would reverse once rioters stormed the Capitol.
The situation in Georgia was tense. Establishment Republicans feared Trump’s volatile denunciation by senior electoral officials would depress turnout.
In a series of phone calls in early and mid-November, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to impress Trump about the stake in the Georgia runoff elections. McConnell’s pitch was straightforward and blunt: we need these victories to protect any progress we’ve made on a number of issues, he warned. Trump’s own inheritance was on the ballot.
But the president didn’t hear it. He would immediately derail those talks with McConnell by ranting about the stolen elections and his conspiracies of fraud.
Before the flight, Trump was informed of voter participation scenarios. Republicans correctly foresaw that the Democrats would dominate the early Georgian vote, but they underestimated how large the Democratic turnout would be on January 5th. Republicans believed 900,000 voters on election day would put them in a decent position to win the runoff, and anything over 1 million would be golden. You were wrong.
Trump’s growing conspiracy in Congress had a high profile member of Air Force One that day. Among the aides and family members who usually accompanied the president was recently sworn MP Marjorie Taylor Greene, who was nationally notorious for her past assistance to QAnon and was part of her Dalton district.
Also on board were two key allies – Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and the President of the Club for Growth, David McIntosh, a former Indiana congressman who co-founded the Federalist Society and studied law under the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
They sat in brown leather armchairs around the long table in the conference room, serving quinoa salad and fried chicken before the waiters brought in macarons. Instead, Graham asked about his dessert order when flying Air Force One: strawberries and cream.
The President came down when they had finished eating and stood at the head of the table, chatting with them for most of the flight. Graham and McIntosh, who had exchanged strategy notes before the flight, tried to get him down.
“Look – if they win you will be vindicated.” Said McIntosh, asking Trump to give Loeffler and Perdue their full support. “Everyone knows that if you win, you get credit for overdoing it. And it will show that Republicans win in an election where they don’t cheat.”
Trump disagreed: “No, you won’t, David. You will blame me if we lose. But if we win, you won’t do me the honor.”
Graham tried a different tactic: “This is your inheritance, Mr. President.”
“We have to win this so that the Democrats cannot dissolve your legacy from the courts to economic policy to your work with China,” stressed Graham.
At one point in flight Trump pulled McIntosh into his private cubicle to sign an autograph for McIntosh’s personal trainer, an avid supporter of the President. McIntosh tried to open a conversation about the future. “Mr. President, you know, if it doesn’t turn out …”
Trump interrupted him with the question: “What do you think are my chances?” – To indicate his chances of a second term 62 days after the election. McIntosh said, “It’s not looking good, sir.” Trump agreed: “Yeah, that’s probably right.”
“Mr. President, if it doesn’t work out, will you run again?” Asked McIntosh. Trump’s response was a rare and passing slip of his usual stern demeanor. “Yeah, I’m thinking about it,” he said. “But you know I’ll be four years older.”
In Dalton, Trump stepped on stage with his wife, pointing, smiling, waving and clapping as Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” roared. He was in his element and the crowd went wild.
Less than 48 hours after Trump’s rally in Georgia Both races were scheduled for Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The Republicans had lost control of the Senate.
Trump was right that anyone would blame him. After all, he had spent months shattering confidence in the electoral system, turning fire on Georgia’s own GOP leadership, and being obsessed with states he had fairly and fairly lost.
He had allowed outsiders and conspirators to crowd out the professionals around him. It had been fed a national feeling of distrust, anger, and despair. Georgia was the last state Trump would take a stand in.
He was about to burn his inheritance. Within 24 hours, the ferocious ground forces the president had summoned to pursue his fantasy of overthrowing the elections would be storming the footsteps of the U.S. Capitol.
🎧 Listen to Jonathan Swan in Axios’ new investigative podcast series entitled “How It Happened: Trump’s Last Stand”.
Read the rest of the “Off the Rails” episodes Here.
About this series: Our coverage is based on multiple interviews with current and former representatives of the White House, campaign, government and Congress, as well as direct eyewitnesses and people close to the President. Sources have been anonymized to share sensitive observations or details that they would not be officially authorized to disclose. President Trump and other officials who were credited with quotations and actions by others were given the opportunity to approve, decline, or respond to any report item prior to publication.
“Off the Rails,” reports White House reporter Jonathan Swan, with assistance from Zach Basu. It was edited by Margaret Talev and Mike Allen. Illustrations by Sarah Grillo, Aïda Amer and Eniola Odetunde.